A friend from my baseball group asked this on Facebook. It was a very direct question and I thought it deserved a thoughtful answer. Unfortunately, some of his friends had already jumped in to essentially say that systemic racism doesn’t exist. It’s a myth made up by some. I could have said this there. Maybe I should have, but I’m a bit battle weary these days and I don’t particularly want to debate strangers that have already made up their minds.
Webster’s dictionary defines institutional racism as “a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organization. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues.”
Textbook definitions are fine and dandy, but this one deserves a little more time and care. Essentially, it is dealing with unequal outcomes. So, let’s start with the first example: criminal justice. According to incarceration trends in Texas (Vera Institute of Justice), 33 percent of the people in prison in Texas are African American. They make up 13 percent of the population in Texas.
Now, one can interpret this data any number of ways. This is where individual attitudes come in. I am ashamed to admit that I used to think this was because African Americans were more likely to commit crimes. This is obviously a simplistic answer that overlooks a number of salient facts. For instance, numerous studies have shown that drug abuse is fairly equivalent across the board, but there are far more African Americans (as a proportion of the population) in jail on drug charges than whites.
More importantly, think about what that attitude implies. Black people are more likely to commit crimes than white people. Therefore, white people are somehow morally superior to black people. Maybe we don’t go that far, but we somehow convince ourselves that it is socioeconomic in nature. They are more likely to be poor and have less education, so that can explain the crime rates. Maybe. However, you cannot explain it all away. That’s proof of systemic racism.
I hate to skip around, but let’s consider education for a moment. If you look at rates of four year degrees (according to Wikipedia) you see that nearly a third of white (non-Hispanic) people attain college degrees. Only 17.3 percent of African Americans obtain a college degree. Naturally, we can explain that any number of ways, but it also gets tied into things like housing, political power, and the other factors listed in the Webster’s definition.
Some of these factors interact together. Let’s consider the recent bragging that Donald Trump did at the convention and before about saving the suburbs from the ravages of a Biden administration. See, Biden would tank the neighborhood with low income housing. That’s a rather simplistic look at an Obama initiative in his HUD department, but let’s take it at face value. A move to the suburbs means a safer environment for your family and better schools for your children. Better schools for your children mean they get a better education. As everyone that has children or has had children know, some schools are better than others and some schools are better at getting their students into college.
This is where civil rights leaders like Malcolm X were dead right about the civil rights movement. Yes, getting rid of Jim Crow was completely necessary and legally integrating schools was an important first step. Still, schools are still primarily organized by neighborhood. Neighborhoods are still homogenous in nature. So, schools haven’t really been all that integrated for the most part. So, lack of equality in housing can lead to lack of equality in education. When you factor in other issues that come up in life (like say health care) you can see how all of these issues are interrelated.
All of this doves into economics and political power. In the first quarter of 2020, African American workers had the highest unemployment rate nationwide. Granted, this is where Trump has been tooting his own horn. The rate among African Americans was “only” 6.3 percent versus a national rate of 3.8 percent in March. Obviously, all of those rates exploded in the second quarter. However, he was correct in that the African American rate was lower than it had been.
It would be fair to say that if more people in my group are in prison, we tend to be less educated, and have built in disadvantages in housing then we will also have fewer representatives in government. We will also have less impact in terms of influencing those in government. One cannot defend vandalism or violently rioting, but one can also understand its roots.
A sizeable minority of the population does not feel heard. They see unequal treatment in the criminal justice system. They see unequal outcomes in the educational system. They see housing disparities and health care disparities. More importantly, they have been saying these things for over a generation and nothing seems to change for them. Admitting that systemic racism exists doesn’t mean that anyone is purposely giving African Americans the shaft. It also doesn’t mean that all of the disparities can be placed at the altar of systemic racism. All groups bare some responsibility for their plight.
The opposite of systemic racism has been labeled “white privilege”. This also tends to anger people. The best analogy I heard described a game of Monopoly. Three players have been playing for an hour. A fourth gets to join them. He is given the same 1500 in cash to start, gets to play by the exact same rules as everyone else, and can even buy whatever property is left over. Except, there really is no property left over and he will constantly land on houses and hotels. The three original players had the privilege of playing the game from the beginning. They had to work hard, play smart, and use good strategy to get ahead. No, nothing was given to them. Still, they have an advantage over the fourth player. The fourth player can win with a whole lot of luck and intelligent decision making. However, that’s not going to happen most of the time.
So, to say that I have privilege doesn’t mean that I haven’t worked hard. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t made good decisions. It doesn’t mean I don’t deserve what I have. It just means I didn’t have to overcome as much as other people. I have two parents that were both educated and educators as it turns out. We lived in a suburb where it was safe. We attended good schools where going on to college was not only encouraged but expected. It was still my responsibility to make the best of this situation. It was just a lot easier to make the best of it. Systemic racism is the mirror image of privilege. It means those impacted are more likely to have a negative outcome. Sure, we can put some of the negative on them for bad decisions or less effort. However, to fail to acknowledge the negative impact of race will perpetuate this problem.